Stuck in Fast Forward

Damien Broderick and Rory Barnes

Very calmly, Mother said, "Donald, look at what's happening to that car."
Father misunderstood. "Sharon, it was damaged when the vacuole came into phase with the normal spacetime continuum. The fractal surface of the expanding constriction pressed against the-"
"I know all that," Mother said, not batting an eyelid. "Have another look at the car."
We all took a closer look. We all moved back smartly. We all gasped simultaneously.
"It's melting," Mother said.
Stuck in Fast Forward

STUCK IN FAST FORWARD

Damien Broderick and Rory Barnes' Stuck in Fast Forward will be published in July by HarperCollins Australia.

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The bodywork, the heavy steel wheels and rubber tyres, the undercarriage slumped, sagging like softened toffee dropped on a hot plate. My own jaw sagged. I held out my hand tentatively, but no excess heat was coming off the collapsing car. The windows didn't crack, either-they just bent and curved in on themselves like something in a cartoon, folding down into the runny body of what a moment before had been a crunched but beautiful old Rolls Royce.
"It's a weapon," Fi said, cranking her cross-bow and fitting an arrow. "Back to the blue place!"
Father held up his hand. "Don't worry," he said, tense but unafraid. "I think I know what's happening. Good Lord, this is extraordinary. In just 14 and a half years? I can scarcely credit it."
The dissolved elements of the car were separating into streams of metal, rubber, wood, glass, and those streams were running all of their own accord into neat piles along the side of the garage. Some of them even ran uphill. It was the creepiest thing I'd ever seen, but weirdly beautiful in its way.
"Very well, dear," Mother said, folding her arms in a thoughtful way. "I admit that this thing defeats my own powers of imagination, let alone reason and experience. What is it, O all-knowing genius?" There was an unaccustomed rasp to her tone.
Dad glanced at her sharply for a moment. "Well, I can't be certain, darling, but I suspect that this is due to nanotechnology. The vehicle is being broken down to its constituents at the molecular level."
I knew about molecular nanotechnology, we'd done a class on the probable future of science in the twenty-first century. Little machines about the same size as bacteria, or maybe viruses-just large molecules, really, built of a few hundred or a few thousand atoms. Yet experts said that machines as small as that would be built one day, doodads that could do calculations like electronic computers, or scavenge and assemble ordinary atoms like carbon and silicon and nitrogen and other stuff into all kinds of great things.
I'd never thought you could build a Rolls Royce with it, though.
"Wicked," I said. "Do you think the new garage doors are made of that stuff too?"
Father rubbed his jaw with a mild rasping noise. He needed a shave. "Could be. In which case, it might contain smart materials. I wonder how smart?" He stepped forward to the solid barrier and said politely, "Pardon me, door, I wonder if you'd mind opening for us?"
Silently, instantly, gracefully, the panels of the steel door slid across each other like a series of eyelids opening. Daylight flooded in to the garage. Four cautious humans and a dog stepped forward to see what we would see.
"Damn!" Fiona muttered, keeping her bow at chest height.
"Oh my," said Mother in dismay.
"Major nanotech breakthrough in art construction," Father observed, fascinated.
"Woof woof woof woof," said Ferdy, keeping close to Fi's heel but refusing to take this lying down.
I just stared back and forth, up and down. After a moment I wailed, "They've taken our house away! How dare they? I want my bedroom back!"
It was extremely hard to absorb what was there, in the plot of land where our dear old house, and half of bloody old Mahoneys" house, had been a few minutes before. A few minutes plus 14-odd years, that is. The thing that loomed above us, standing with two gigantic feet deep in the soil of our garden and lawn, was a monstrous figure of a winged woman, the size of a ten storey building, at least forty metres tall, with an austere, beautiful face blinded or masked by a black band across her eyes. She held a sleek, cocked cross-bow in an attitude of powerful determination. She was made out of some substance that looked like marble, but she seemed to be breathing! It was a statue of Justice in Rebellion. It was a monument to Dispassionate Courage. It was-
"Bloody hell," I blurted. "Fi, they've gone and built a statue to your memory!"
I dragged my gaze away from that astonishing sight and looked around what had been our suburb. It was quite a shock, like finding one of those old paintings of your local harbour and its shoreline before the city was built there, all soft vegetation and brilliant-hued birds in the plentiful trees and running streams where later there were high-rise buildings everywhere, and railways lines, and billboards, and busy streets. This was just like that, but in reverse.
Everything was gone except the basic landscape. And a few bizarre extras that certainly hadn't been there just 14 or 15 years earlier.
"Peak's Hill looks rather odd without the church," Mother remarked in a rather flat tone.
"The supermarket's gone!" I screeched. "Where will we get our food?"
Fi sent me a derisory glance. "You're stuck in the past, kiddo. There haven't been supermarkets open for nearly a year." She caught herself, grimaced. "In my time, anyway. Looks like they've done an even better job of smashing things up this time."
"Fascinating," Dad was saying, walking toward the living statue. "Absolutely fascinating." He held out one exploratory hand, touched the marble foot in its steel sandal. Nothing happened. He kicked it lightly with his own foot.
"For heaven's sake, Donald," Mother said in exasperation, "do use some common sense! We don't know what-"
The statue's foot moved. It lifted from the long grass, ponderous as an elephant's leg swinging into action, and set itself down a half a metre away. If it had gone the other way and come down on Dad, it would have squashed him to pulp.
In sudden fright, Dad jumped back. Ferdinand barked sharply.
Fiona stepped forward, hands on her hips, and looked up and up at the likeness of her own face.
"Hey, cut that out!" she shouted. "Somebody could get hurt."
I cringed, expecting the monument's great stone hand to cast aside its cross-bow and reach down like King Kong, lifting my sister up against its great breast. Luckily nothing of that sort occurred. The wind blew across the open stretches of grass where once a hundred or a thousand suburban homes had bustled with human life. A pigeon cooed, and another answered it. An immense pink pillar glistened in the sun over near the intersection of Hal Porter Road and Barrow St, or where the intersection had been, but did nothing in particular. The massive grey tangle of wire in the distance where the orthopaedic hospital had been just sat there. I turned my head, trying to find anything at all I could recognise. A blue upside-down pyramid stood on its point like a geometric ballet dancer. It was turning ever so slowly, I realised, clockwise, without a sound.
No windows in any of these scary objects. Nothing human, except the statue of Fi, and that was nothing you'd wish to take home for tea and cakes.
"It wants to know why your implants are dysfunctional," a man's lilting voice said in my ear. A young man. Not Dad, who was still prowling around the mighty feet of the monument. I did just what you'd expect.
I screamed, and jumped away.
There was nobody in sight, just my family.
"Oh, I do apologise," the new voice said. "Didn't mean to startle you."
Fi had obviously heard the voice too, for she grabbed up her cross-bow. Mother was frowning, and her eyes darted behind me, to either side. Clearly she couldn't see anything either.
"Where are you?" I said, heart pumping.
"Golly, are your virt links out as well? Just a mo." A couple of hundred metres away, about where Max's Body Works had been, a plug of dirt popped out of the ground and a good-looking young man of vaguely Indonesian appearance rose into view on a column of yellow plastic. I gasped, and Fiona guffawed.
"When in Rome-" Mother murmured quietly, which greatly impressed me.
The young man was stark naked.
His hair was dark and quite long, and he had a short beard. Without looking as distorted as one of those muscle loons like Arnie Schwarzenegger, he was well built, with wide shoulders and a deep chest and powerful arms and strong legs and-
I looked away.
Fiona didn't.
"-do as the Romans do?" she finished for Mother.
"Not quite, dear. I don't think we need to undress out here in the open. I just mean that we shouldn't be alarmed if other people in other times have different dress codes from our own."
The guy was walking in a loose-limbed amble toward us. Suddenly he did a conspicuous double-take, stopping dead in his tracks, looked up at the monument and back down at Fiona, then up again.
"That's you," he called. His English definitely had that very faint Asian lilt. "Isn't it?"
"Looks like," Fi called back. She stayed where she was, at our side, but she wasn't scared any longer, I could tell by the way her arm muscles had relaxed. It must help to find that you've turned into a living legend overnight.
"No wonder the Grand One's interested," the young man said. He reached our group, bowed, and held out both hands. "Benisons upon you. I'm Barong. I'll be your interface this afternoon."
Dad held out his own hand, and took one of Barong's. The naked youth looked at this clutching grip for a puzzled moment, and then allowed Dad to shake their linked hands up and down, as if he'd never done such a thing before.
"Hello, Barong," Dad said politely. "Pleased to meet you. Is the Grand One an AI?"
"I'm sorry, a what?"
"An AI-an artificial intelligence."
Barong's expression clouded. "I fear that sounds rather offensive. The Grand One is the Mind of this world and its moon."
Mother smiled. "Gaia!" she breathed.
"I apologise if I gave offence," my father said. "I meant a consciousness constructed of computers, maybe nano-computers, rather than flesh and blood like us humans."
"Oh, I see." The young man's expression cleared, and he smiled radiantly. He really was terrifically handsome. I was starting to forget his nudity and just take him for granted as a person. "Yes, that's how the Grand One began, before the Spike. Now it's a globally dispersed awareness. But everyone knows that."
I couldn't understand a word of any of this, but Dad seemed to be glomming it without any trouble, and Mother watched with a keen expression of interest. This must have been the kind of stuff Dad had worked on at the Ferguson Foundation. It was at the Foundation that he'd met Mother, several years before I was born. She'd been involved in programming supercomputers to develop common sense-"Far harder than training neural nets to play Grandmaster chess or run a factory," she told me once-but she'd given it up when the military who funded the research made it clear that her computer code would be used to run robotic weapons systems.
"The Grand One invites you to come with me for genome scanning," Barong told our parents. "We'll soon fix up those defective implants."
"We don't have any bloody implants," Fi told him with a ferocious expression, "and we're going to stay that way, bozo."
"No, my name is Barong, not Bozo," the young man said evenly. "There is an ancient legend of the battle between the lion lord Barong and the wicked witch Rangla. Her magic reflects the knives of his supporters back against him, but his power prevents this attack from wounding them." He shrugged. "Sorry, there's no reason why this tale should interest you."
"Not at all, dear," Mother told him. "We find everything about you fascinating. Truthfully," she added, placing one hand in a gentle way on his bare shoulder, "I'm having some trouble seeing how all these astonishing changes have taken place in a mere decade and a half."
Barong reached across with his right hand to touch hers with equal gentleness.
"There was a terrible plague, you see. That is one of the old words, "plague". It means that bodies are damaged and many of them cease to operate."
"You mean people get sick and die," Fi said witheringly. I couldn't understand why she was being so crabby. I mean, this guy was gorgeous.
He blinked. Almost instantly, he nodded. "Yes, that is another way to put it. We prefer not to be so blunt, mistress. But now I'm afraid I must ask you to accompany me for the genome scan, where you will-"
"I've already told you, we're not going anywhere." Fiona's gaze was direct and fearless. "Certainly not with some bozo who wanders around without his pants on."
The youth looked even more confused. "Oh, I'm so sorry, I really haven't made myself clear. The Grand One is not issuing an invitation, even if it is polite to express it in such terms. I fear you must come with me. You cannot be allowed to roam the world without your implants." He smiled delicately. "It would seem to us as improper as my lack of formal attire evidently seems to you-and for that discourtesy, in turn, I offer my deepest apologies. Now, come."
"No," said Dad, with unexpected firmness.
"We really can't, you see," Mother added.
"Not on your life," Fiona chimed in.
Without warning, hot blue and scarlet flared in the distance. A tremendous roaring explosion resounded across the open landscape. We all jerked around, stared at the grey mass of tangled wire in the distance. Brilliant sparks leaped about it, rising in a sheet of transparent fire.
"Corona discharge," Dad said shakily.
Coolly, Barong told us: "The Grand One realises that you do not yet quite grasp your situation. Here is a lesson to help you understand how matters must be. Don't be alarmed, your four-footed friend is not being harmed in any way."
"Ferdy?" cried Fi, frightened for the first time. She darted forward, hand outstretched to seize the dog's collar. At the same instant, a searing beam of light blazed from the corona storm. It struck Ferdinand like a bolt of lightning, with a sizzle of burned hair, and the poor animal gave a single terrified yap. Then he went up into the air, lofting above our heads, and hung there suspended, eyes rolling, tongue extended from his open muzzle, panting in sheerest fear.
"You said you wouldn't hurt him, you bastard," Fiona screamed, punching the surprised youth with her hard fists. He backed away, warding her off.
"Really, mistress, trust us, the beast will not be harmed. It is simply receiving its implants. Look-"
I thought I was going to be sick. Ferdy was turning transparent. You could see right through his fur to the skin and then the peeled muscle, and finally the internal organs. His bones glowed like coals. Organs and intestines were blotches that pulsed with his blood. And something drastic was going on inside his body, inside his brain. Sparks of light wove and darted, shuttling like some magic seamstress's sorcerous needles.
"Put him down," I shouted. "Put our dog down at once!"
The glowing coals faded. Ferdy's red muscles closed up, and his fur wrapped him once more. As the beam of light faded, he sank back to the ground, and crouched there, trembling terribly. Fi ran to him at once, crouched at his side, rubbing his head and back, crooning, whispering soft encouragement. I saw tears in her eyes. She glanced back expressionlessly at Barong, and then at Mother and Father.
What happened then is a thing familiar to every family, although it doesn't occur very often.
Mother and Dad exchanged a single piercing glance, looked back at Fi. Mother caught my eye in the same movement, and I was included seamlessly in the common moment of insight and agreement. The family had assessed the situation, found it dangerous beyond belief, chosen to deal with it in a single fluent response. I nodded my head the tiniest bit, and Mother's upper eyelid twitched her acknowledgment. Fi rose in a weight-lifting squat, bearing Ferdy in her arms, and started toward the garage.
"Thank you for taking us into your confidence," Mother told the youth. "Of course we shall be happy to visit your master."
"Not "master"," Barong said. "The Grand One is the mind of this world, and we are parts of it. Well, all of us except yourselves," he said, smiling joyfully, "and that will soon be put right. Where is the mistress of the bow taking her four-footed friend?"
"Oh," Dad said in a light tone, "there are some private treasures we would like to gather up from the garage before we visit the Grand One."
"I'm afraid I cannot permit any of you to leave my sight," Barong said.
Better and better, I thought to myself. He's walking right into it. My skin and innards were crackling with adrenalin, a drunken mix of anxiety and eager readiness, the sort of state our prehistoric ancestors must have experienced when they surrounded a wounded lion on the veldt.
"Of course you can't," Mother told him in a soothing voice. "Come on, come with us, you can help us carry our treasures out. We won't need this old place any longer. What is it, anyway, a kind of museum?"
She was walking in a gait that almost looked normal, but I could tell that her nerves were screaming with the same tension that buzzed in mine. The youth blinked again, obviously transmitting an update to his computer lord, getting back his instructions in a split-instant. He nodded, then, and followed us toward the half-open doors.
"After the Spike, and the Great Dying that led up to it, we few surviving mehums kept as many of our old memories as we could, telling tales and singing songs. I was only 10 or 11 then, so I don't remember much myself."
""Mehums"?" I asked, following him into the dimness of the garage. I didn't bother closing the doors behind us. Dad had his remote out, and was keying in the phase shift.
I saw the flash of Barong's white teeth. "Mehums? Short for "mere humans"," he said. "It's how we thought of ourselves after the Grand One transcended, and then brought us into communion."
Fi was standing next to the wall of lava, Ferdy still in her arms, waiting to pass through into the blue place.
"Go," Dad said, as the light on his remote changed to red.
Fiona moved forward-and bounced off.
"What the hell-? Daddy, it's still solid!"
Mother stepped forward, peered closely at the lava wall.
"Oh, damnation," she said. "It's infested with a layer of nanoids, unless I'm mistaken. They're probably locked into a monomolecular shell."
I was more shocked by Mother's mild curse than by her comment, until I moved forward myself and stared at the vacuole from a few centimetres. The surface was seething with a ceaseless ripple of- well, who knows, but it was obviously some sort of advanced technology. And it was blocking our entry.
"Don't worry," the youth told us. "The small machines are examining this unusual phenomenon. Soon they will begin taking it apart and mapping it. Your "treasures", as you call them, will be unharmed."
Dad was trying to scrape the surface clean, picking at it with his fingernails. He withdrew his hand with a grunt.
"It stung me," he said, sucking the edge of his palm.
He found a spade in the racks overhead and tried again to scrape a gap in the infestation. The edge of the spade immediately curled and started to drip on to the floor, just as the Rolls Royce had done. Dad dropped the tool with a yell.
"Enough," Barong said in a voice suddenly stern and mature. I couldn't help thinking that it was no longer him speaking, but his terrible master. His owner, more likely. "Let us return now to the inner chambers. You will not be harmed, and your possessions will be reconstructed for you in due course."
He spun around lithely, and the doors of the garage sprang open without any touch of human hand.
And I knew what to do.
"Turn the vacuole off, Daddy," I yelled.
"What?" He'd picked the deformed spade up again and was trying once again to batter his way through the wall of impenetrable nanoids.
"Give me the remote, Dad." I pulled the thing from the clip on his belt and pushed the button I'd seen him use several times.
The blast of air hit us again, but this time from behind, carrying grit from outside. The vacuole had imploded out of our reality into its own constricted spacetime, snatching away the physical support from beneath the crust of nanoids. The creepy stuff simply fell to the concrete floor, and slowly streams of it started to creep back toward the walls.
"Now!" I shouted, and slammed the button next to the red illuminated diode.
The vacuole inflated again back into our universe, instantly, pushing aside the air that had just rushed in to fill the gap left by its abrupt absence. I ran to it, stuck my hand into its lava-like wall. My fingers vanished, my hand, the lower half of my arm.
"Yes! Come on, Fi!"
My sister hurled herself and Ferdy at the wall, vanished. Mother was gone too, then, but Dad waited, damaged spade in one hand, holding out the other for the remote. "Go, Nat," he said.
And like a lion pouncing, powerful and smelling of sweat, Barong leaped past him and seized my hand with the small machine still in it. I refused to let it go, twisting away from him, half in and half out of the vacuole. A brilliant flash of light struck the garage. The AI's beam was back, searching like a living tongue of light. Barong wrenched my arm back. I dropped the remote, yelling with pain. The raw beam of intelligent light tore at the open doors of the garage, ripped them away, sent them spinning into the air.
And Dad threw himself on both of us with a jolt that must have bruised him painfully.
Barong and I tumbled together through the vacuole boundary. Furry blue was everywhere. Father fell on top of us, dropping the spade and grabbing for the remote. So did I. Too late. The young man, eyes appalled by the strangeness of this place but driven by the need to serve the Grand One, lunged at the gadget and struck a random button with one long, hard finger.
Our heads seemed to split apart. Green light flashed. Time jumped.
"Bad choice," Dad muttered, face screwed up from the transition. He plucked the remote from Barong's shocked grasp, backed away into the blue nowhere. "Welcome to the 23rd century."
"The year 2233, to be exact," Mother said, watching us with concern. She'd always been good with numbers.
Barong screamed. It was a piteous cry, the sound of someone separated from his family, his world, his life. His god.

This excerpt from Stuck in Fast Forward
appears with the kind permission of the authors.
All rights reserved. To be published by
HarperCollins Australia, July 1999.

©1999 Damien Broderick and Rory Barnes